Monthly Archives: November 2013

Climbing to the Top

I had an interesting insight Thursday morning. I must admit that, grateful as I am to have a novel coming out next Monday, I still tend to berate myself for not achieving this goal earlier. Sometimes, I think if I had just lived my life differently, I would have published a book sooner.

However, as I meditated on Thanksgiving, I was gazing out a different window than I usually do, looking at a bush with a strong central trunk and many, many branches—all of them bare because of the season. Suddenly understanding hit. Yes, perhaps I could have gone straight up that center trunk from the base to the tip, but I didn’t. What I did instead was to scoot out on one branch to gather flowers. In a different season, I scooted out on a second branch to collect fruit. Another time I crawled out on a third branch to take in a new view. Yet, each time I returned to the center trunk and climbed a little higher.

And so it went throughout the years and across the cycle of the seasons. I could have tried to go straight up that trunk to the pinnacle of the tree, but I chose a more meandering path, and because of it, my arms and my heart carry many more treasures. I think that both my life and my writing benefit because of that.



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The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte: Shipwreck

This is the fifth and final of my excerpts from my forthcoming novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. After their marriage, Betsy and Jerome made several attempts to sail to France to obtain Napoleon’s approval of their impulsive marriage. This scene occurs shortly after they and Betsy’s aunt, Nancy Spear, board an American merchant ship bound for Spain:

     Toward evening, clouds massed over the land to the west, gusts of westerly wind blew with increasing force, and the temperature dropped. Betsy saw heightened activity among the crew as they worked to keep control of the ship, which was listing to port. As rain began to fall, Jerome hurried her below to their cabin.
For hours, the gale lashed the ship, causing it to buck and roll. Betsy lay in the bunk, clinging to its railing to keep from being tossed about. Jerome sat beside her in the cabin’s single chair. Betsy’s stomach heaved along with the sea, and she vomited several times into the washbasin, which Jerome had moved onto the bed beside her. He did not get sick, in spite of being shut up with a retching wife, but he looked pale and agitated. Finally, after an hour, he said, “Elisa, do you feel well enough for me to leave you for a short while? I feel uneasy about Miss Spear.”
Betsy felt guilty that, in her distress, she had not thought of her aunt. “Yes, please go inquire how she is.” A wave of nausea rolled over her again, and she pressed her fist against her mouth. Her diaphragm ached from the constant heaving.
Jerome made his way out of the cabin, touching the wall as he went to keep his balance. He was gone for several minutes. When he returned, he said, “Ta pauvre tante. Elle est plus malade que toi.
“Oh, dear,” Betsy said. If Aunt Nancy was worse than this, she must feel as though she were at death’s door. Betsy tried to push herself to a sitting position so she could go to the older woman, but the ship abruptly rose and then descended with a sickening plunge. She lay back down. “What can we do for her?”
“Nothing, my love. I told her to drink a little water, but she would not. There is nothing else to do but ride out the storm.” He pushed Betsy’s sweat-soaked hair back from her forehead.
After a while, Betsy ceased retching because her muscles were too exhausted to contract anymore and her stomach had nothing left to expel. Jerome carried the vomit-filled basin away. Then he carefully crawled into the bunk and pressed his body to Betsy’s back as she lay on her side. His nearness helped her relax, and she fell into a fitful sleep, broken several times during the night by the ship’s wild movement.
Toward morning, Betsy awoke and listened to the crashing of the waves pounding the side of the ship. She wondered how long the gale would last. When she shifted her position to lie closer to Jerome, she marveled at how much her abdomen ached from the bout of seasickness. Then the hull of the ship jolted and shuddered. Betsy heard a sharp splintering sound. The ship began to sway like a very slow rocking chair, up and back, up and back.
“Jerome!” He woke quickly, and she told him what had happened.
Sainte Mère, I think we have run aground.” He crawled over Betsy, being careful not to press his weight on her, and climbed down from the bunk. When he stood, Betsy realized that the floor of their cabin inclined from the outer hull to the exit. Jerome pushed hard to open their cabin door and left her.

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Happy Thanksgiving

And a special thank you to all of you who have visited or left comments in the short time this blog has been going. I hope you have an abundant and peace-filled holiday.


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The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte: On the Way to Niagara

This is the fourth in a series of excerpts from my forthcoming novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. During the first year of their marriage, Jerome and Betsy traveled to Niagara Falls, which was still a little-visited wilderness. They are believed to be only the second honeymooning couple to visit the falls. In this scene, they are camping out for the first time. Note that Elisa was Jerome’s pet name for Betsy.

     Toward evening, they halted just before a wooden bridge that spanned a stream cutting across their route. Betsy noticed a rank smell in the air. Jerome gestured to the right, where an opening in the trees looked like the beginning of a trail. “I am going to explore that path and search for a clearing where we can camp.” He dismounted, tied his horse to a sapling beside the road, and headed into the trees.
     Betsy pressed her lips together and peered after him until a bend in the trail took him from sight. Her horse moved restlessly, so Betsy patted it and murmured, “Whoa.”
     As the minutes passed, she stared down the road, first in one direction and then the other. The smell was making her ill, and being alone made her uneasy. The undergrowth beneath the trees was so thick that it was impossible to tell if anything was hiding there.
     When Jerome returned, he said, “There is a clearing. I think someone might have started to build a house here, but they did not progress very far.”
     He helped Betsy dismount from her sidesaddle, and she walked a ways to stretch her sore legs. As she glanced down to check where she was stepping, she saw a long cylindrical object ringed with dark jagged bands lying across the road. Following it with her eyes, she realized it was a snake that had been run over by a wheeled cart; the body was smashed near the head and the dirt showed traces of blood. Betsy stepped back, even though she knew it was dead, and then looked for the snake’s tail. It had rattles.
     “Jerome, we cannot stay here. There are rattlesnakes.”
     He came up beside her to stare at it. “Zut! So that is the source of the stink.” Putting an arm around her, he squeezed her shoulders. “The serpent is dead and can do us no harm.”
     “There may be others. Robert once found a whole nest of copperheads at Springfield.”
     Jerome looked up at the sky. The sun had sunk behind the treetops, and shadow completely covered the road. “It is too late to go farther. If this region is infested with snakes, the danger will exist wherever we go. We should set up our camp now while there is still light.”
     Betsy wanted to argue with him, but he grabbed their horses’ reins and began leading them down the trail he had discovered. Tears pricked Betsy’s eyes as she lifted her skirts and followed him. The trail was barely six inches wide. Ferns, small shrubs, and saplings encroached upon it from either side, and she disliked having them brush against her as she passed.
     After a few minutes, they emerged into a small clearing. Betsy halted and looked around. The rocky stream ran along one edge of an open area dotted with stumps. Someone had chopped down several trees and dragged them to the far side of the clearing, which was higher than the ground beside the stream. Betsy could see that the axeman had cleaned the logs by stripping their branches. As she wondered why he had abandoned the site so soon after starting construction, a sense of foreboding settled on her.
     Near the center of the clearing was a circle of rocks surrounding a shallow fire pit. Glancing into the woods, Betsy saw several mossy outcroppings of stone. The stench of dead snake was no longer noticeable; instead, she could smell leaf mold and resin.
     As Betsy stood pensively, trying to imagine sleeping out of doors, Jerome went to his bags and found his hatchet. Then he removed his coat and began to chop some of the discarded branches for firewood. He told Betsy to gather kindling and tinder. When she started toward the edge of the clearing to look for dried grasses and bits of peeled bark, a movement caught her eye.
     She halted and found herself facing a fox that stood just inside the first line of trees. The animal had frozen with its head slightly lowered. A tree blocked part of its body and ferns hid its feet, but Betsy could see its red fur, upright ears, and pointed snout.
     “Jerome!” she said in a loud whisper. She turned her head to catch his attention.
     He was in the midst of swinging his hatchet. After finishing the stroke, he wiped his forehead with his shirtsleeve. “What?”
     Betsy looked back toward the woods, but the fox had gone. “Oh,” she said in disappointment. “It left.”
     “Elisa, what are you talking about?” After leaning his hatchet against a log, he walked toward her.
     “I saw a fox over there.”
     Jerome bent to kiss her. “A pity I did not have my pistols to hand. I could have gotten you a fur collar.”
     “I am glad you did not. It was beautiful, and foxes do not hurt people, do they?”
     “No.” Jerome returned to his chopping. As Betsy gathered up twigs and leaves for tinder, she wished she had brought a basket on their journey. Then her mind returned to the fox. She had rarely been so close to a wild creature. The experience had unnerved her at first, but then she had felt a kinship with the animal, which after all was only trying to make its way in the world.
     Dusk fell before they finished making camp, and mosquitoes began to bite. Jerome built a large campfire, and its smoke helped drive away the troublesome insects. Then he went down to the stream to fetch water.
     As Betsy unpacked the bread and cheese they brought for their supper, she heard a loud half-snarling cry from somewhere in the woods, followed by a terrible, almost human scream. Too frightened to move, she stared into the darkness and waited. After a few moments, she heard something heavy moving in the brush, and she started to tremble. “Jerome?” she called, but her voice was too weak to carry. Betsy pressed both hands against her stomach and swallowed hard.


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The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte: Stalked by British Warships

This is the third of my excerpts from my forthcoming novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. After their marriage, Betsy and Jerome needed to sail to France to obtain Napoleon’s approval of their impulsive marriage, but they had to be careful. The British navy was eager to capture Napoleon’s youngest brother. Shortly after the Bonapartes board a French frigate in New York’s Inner Harbor, they are shown to their cabin. (Note that Elisa is Jerome’s pet name for Betsy.)

     They followed the sailor down a narrow path between hammocks, past a partition, and into a corridor that ran between cabins. “Voilà,” the sailor said, pointing to a door. Then, after touching his cap in a gesture of respect to Jerome and swiftly running his gaze over Betsy’s figure, he hurried away.
     As Jerome opened the door, he warned Betsy that it had a raised sill. She carefully stepped into a cramped closet of a room with a single bunk, small writing desk and chair, and washstand. A whale-oil lamp was mounted to a bracket on the wall. Although her father earned much of his fortune through shipping, Betsy had never been on a vessel before and was shocked by the tight spaces and the pervasive odors of pine tar, mildew, and worse.
     Jerome ducked to enter the low door. Straightening again, he laughed when he saw Betsy’s expression. “Oh, my poor Elisa. You did not expect anything so Spartan, did you?”
     He took her into his arms and kissed her. “A frigate was never meant to house such a fine lady as you.”
     They ate supper in the wardroom that evening, and as they dined on beef, fresh bread, fruit, and cheese, the officers teased Betsy that she was lucky they had just victualed the ship. “If we had been at sea for many weeks, we would have had to serve you ship’s biscuit riddled with weevil worms.”
     At the end of the meal, when the Bonapartes rose from the table, Captain Brouard told Jerome that he was sending a pilot boat out the next day to see if the coastal waters were clear.
     “An excellent precaution.” Jerome answered.
     “What did the captain mean?” Betsy asked Jerome once they were alone in their cabin.
     He knelt on the bunk to open their porthole and get some fresh air. “My sojourn in the United States is no secret, Elisa. For weeks the New York newspapers have been publishing accounts of our plans to sail.”
     “And the British would like nothing better than to capture Napoleon’s brother,” she said with a shudder.
     Her frightened tone caused him to turn and peer at her. “Sois tranquille. You are in experienced hands. If we should be attacked during our journey, I will place you in the most protected part of the ship, and if the worst happens and we are forced to surrender, you will be sent to your family. Not even the British would use a woman as political hostage.”
     Betsy went into his arms. “That would be little comfort to me if you were made prisoner. I would rather share your fate.”
     “I would never allow that.” He stroked her hair. “But have no fear. The Didon is our navy’s fastest frigate.”
     The next afternoon as they waited for news, Jerome gave Betsy a tour of the main deck of the ship, showing her the enormous ship’s wheel, the compass, the bell, the masts, and the rigging. As he explained the various sails and their uses, he noticed the pilot boat returning from its scouting mission. They waited impatiently as the boat’s skipper made his report. Finally, the captain summoned them to his stateroom.
     “The scout brought grave news,” Brouard said. “Two British warships, a corvette and a frigate, are lying off Sandy Hook just south of the place where we must enter the lower bay.”
     “A corvette is not much threat. How many guns has the frigate?” Jerome asked.
     “Then taken together, the Cybèle and the Didon outgun them.”
     “Yes, but our maneuverability will be limited. I take it you have not sailed the Narrows before. We will be in single file as we pass between Staten Island and Long Island, while they will have the advantage of being in open water. And our scout saw more ships on the horizon.”
     The news terrified Betsy, and she bit her lip. Jerome had a glint in his eyes that made her think he relished the idea of fighting their way free, but seeing her fear, he said, “Perhaps they have nothing to do with us. Let us wait a day or two and see what action they take.”


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Review: A Sunset Finish

I recently finished reading the novella A Sunset Finish by Melinda Moore. The genre is speculative fiction, one I don’t read very often. However, I enjoyed this brief book. I read it in a PDF review copy, but Amazon lists the e-book edition as 65 pages. (I don’t think it’s in print format.)

Violinist Stephanie Minagawa has just arrived in Albuquerque to play with the orchestra there. Stephanie struggles with self-doubt, depression, and a difficult relationship with her mother, and this move is an attempt to start over. Unfortunately for Stephanie, the first time she plays her violin in New Mexico, it explodes because the arid climate has dried it out too much.

Her stand mate with the orchestra refers her to an instrument repair shop, and when Stephanie arrives, that’s when things really start to happen. As soon as she walks inside the shop, Stephanie sees strange colored lights and figures made of smoke, but when she mentions this to the people at the shop, they grow uncomfortable and refuse to answer her questions. Stephanie and Bruce, the young man who will repair her instrument, quickly realize they are strongly attracted to each other, but each carries wounds from the past. And the unresolved conflicts from the past—Stephanie’s depression and dangerous spirits somehow linked to Bruce—eventually threaten Stephanie’s life.

In addition to the intriguing plot, one thing I like about the story was the vivid but not overblown descriptions. Moore also does a good job giving details of the characters’ back story and revealing them when the reader needs to know. I thought the chemistry between Stephanie and Bruce was conveyed well. Moore also works in just enough of Stephanie’s Japanese beliefs and Bruce’s Native American beliefs to help the reader understand the story, without launching into dry explanations. In one especially nice touch, several chapters open with haiku, supposedly written by Stephanie herself.My one quibble with the story is that at times, Moore isn’t precise enough in her scene setting. At least twice, I was surprised to suddenly learn that more people were in a room than I had thought. These moments of confusion pulled me out of the story needlessly. However, that was a minor flaw in an otherwise enjoyable read.


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Writing Historical Fiction Part 3

Meredith Allard shares some really helpful tips for researching historical fiction.

From Meredith Allard

Read all about it. 

Track down as many primary sources as you can—sources written or created during the time period you’re studying: journals, diaries, autobiographies, news film footage, interviews, photographs, speeches, books (both fiction and nonfiction), research data, even art. I still remember the afternoon I spent at my local university library looking up old newspaper clippings from the early 20th century when I was researching Victory Garden. It was fascinating to see what had been written between the years 1917-1922, the days when the women’s suffrage movement, World War I, and then Prohibition were happening. I was also fascinated to see how propaganda was used then, which wasn’t so different from the way it was used during World War II. Here’s a funny thing you learn when you’re researching history: the more things change, the more they stay the same. I even enjoyed reading advertisements from the period because it gave me a sense of…

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Finding Creative Balance

I mentioned the other day that art was what kept me going doing a period when I almost gave up my writing. I’m grateful to my art teacher Richard Halstead for helping me keep that creative spark alive and also for one other thing. The portrait of Betsy on the cover of my novel is my own work. I created it by working from a couple of the existing portraits painted during her lifetime.

There is also a third reason that my art is important to me. Because I’m a freelance educational writer as well as a novelist, I used my verbal skills all the time. Sometimes that part of my brain just needs a rest. A couple of weeks ago, I deliberately took a couple of hours to work on a drawing just to find a little balance. It’s not much more than a sketch, but here it is:



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The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte: At the President’s Mansion

This is the second of my excerpts from my forthcoming novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. While on their honeymoon, Betsy and Jerome Bonaparte traveled to Washington to visit her uncle, Senator Samuel Smith, and mingle with high society:

     They were also invited to dinner at the President’s Mansion. Beforehand, Uncle Smith told Betsy that in a perverse display of neutrality, President Jefferson had invited both the French minister and the new British ambassador, despite the war between their two countries.
     For the occasion, which would begin at 3:00 in the afternoon and last until late evening, Betsy wore a sheer gown bedecked with gold embroidery that would sparkle in the candlelight. This would be her first visit to the home of a head of state, and she wanted to demonstrate to Jerome that she knew how to dress for such occasions.
     As the Smith carriage drove up to the north entrance, Betsy stared avidly at the details of the building and wondered how it compared to the palaces she would someday live in with Jerome. The President’s Mansion was an imposing light-grey stone structure, wide enough that eleven windows stretched across its upper story. The center block of the mansion was decorated with four Doric columns crowned by a triangular pediment. A small pediment also topped each window, but Betsy was surprised to see that they were not all the same. Rather, triangles alternated with rounded arches.
     Following the Smiths, Betsy and Jerome climbed the stone steps and walked through the front door into the entrance hall, a marble-floored space that was wider than it was long. On the far side of the room, four Doric columns marked the boundary between the entryway and the central cross hall.
     Servants came to take their outer garments, and after Betsy handed over her cloak, she noticed that the entrance hall was cold despite having facing fireplaces on the east and west walls. She hoped that she would not be covered in goose skin by the time she made it through the receiving line into the oval drawing room where the president stood greeting his guests. As they stepped through the central columns into the cross hall, she glanced left to see if she could catch a glimpse of the East Room—infamous as the vast unfinished space where Abigail Adams had once dried laundry. Betsy had heard that, even though it was intended to be a public reception room, the East Room was still unplastered. Just last year, Aunt Margaret had written that the first attempt at installing a ceiling in the room had collapsed. Now a piece of canvas stretched across the doorway, so Betsy could not see a thing.
     When she and Jerome were presented to President Jefferson, Betsy was amused to see him in the characteristically plain dress he wore on republican principle: an old blue coat, dark corduroy breeches, dingy white hose, and run-down backless slippers. “Madame Bonaparte, allow me to welcome you to Washington. I hope your father was well when you left him.”
     “He was, Mr. President, and he particularly charged me with thanking you for the very kind letter of reference that you wrote.”
     “It gave me great pleasure to do whatever I could to further an alliance that will cement relations between the United States and France. As you know, I spent several years as ambassador to France and I retain great fondness for our sister republic.”
     From the corner of her eye, Betsy saw a distinguished-looking man in formal diplomatic dress shoot the president a frosty glare. After Mr. Jefferson moved to another guest, Uncle Smith introduced Jerome and Betsy to the irate gentleman, who was the British ambassador Mr. Anthony Merry.
     “Citizen Bonaparte.” Mr. Merry gave a curt nod. “I greet you as a fellow guest of Mr. Jefferson and not as the enemy of my country.”
     Betsy answered before Jerome could, “Sir, how wise you are to know that for tonight, we must draw blades against the roast and not the person opposite.”
     Merry smiled grudgingly. He then introduced them to his wife, Elizabeth Death Merry, a fiftyish woman with heavy eyebrows and a long nose in a horsy face. Despite her plain looks, Mrs. Merry was dressed as a beauty with rouge on her cheeks and a chandelier necklace of sapphires around her throat. Her blue velvet gown was cut so low that her enormous bosom, restrained only by a film of lace, threatened to pop free. As soon as they were out of earshot of the Merrys, Betsy whispered to Jerome, “Law, she displays those melons as though she were a market.”
     When it came time for the meal, President Jefferson further offended his English guests by leading Betsy from the drawing room into the dining room instead of following protocol and honoring Mrs. Merry. Betsy could not resist glancing back over her shoulder to grin triumphantly at Jerome.


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Eternal Flame

I wrote this poem four years ago, when I was struggling with the temptation to give up writing. I nearly did give it up. I began to study painting intead, and I barely wrote for at least a year. The artwork, however, was enough to keep the flame flickering, and two and a half years ago, I started writing The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. Now, in two weeks, I will have achieved my lifelong dream of having a novel published.

If you have a calling, think long and hard before you ever decide to give it up.


In a rocky cleft
beneath the willows,
burns a quavering blue flame
that I alone must tend,
arcing my body into a canopy
when the rain pelts
or smothering snow falls.
In all weathers I must feed the fire
scraps of paper, broken pencils,
and fingernails torn as I scratch and claw
through the bricklike clay of my spirit,
hardened by years of rejection,
yet fertile still when gently watered.
Dig through unyielding earth for
wood chips, abandoned cardboard,
any and all refuse
that might feed this insatiable muse,
my burden,
my calling,
my obedience.


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